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May 1862 saw political successes for the new state of West Virginia but militarily it was a zero-sum game for both Union and Confederate forces.
In Wheeling, momentum behind the new state movement continued. Gov. Francis H. Pierpont spoke before the legislature of the Restored Government of Virginia on May 6.
“The Constitution of the United State provides that ‘no new State shall be formed or erected within the jurisdiction of any other State, without the consent of the Legislature of the State concerned, as well as of the Congress,’” Pierpont said. “Therefore, to complete the work which has been commenced, of the division of the State, it requires the consent of the Legislature of Virginia and the assent of Congress.”
Pierpont said some considered the movement “revolutionary,” but those who objected on this basis, “do not understand the history, geography and social relation of our State.”
The legislature heeded Pierpont’s call to action on May 13, granting permission for the new state’s formation out of 48 counties. The act was then submitted to Congress, where Virginia’s representatives were asked to support the division.
On May 29, Sen. Waitman T. Willey presented the formal petition before Congress. Willey defended the long history of division between the eastern and western portions of the state.
“It seems to be supposed that this movement for a new State has been conceived since the breaking out of the rebellion, and was a consequence of it—that it grew alone out the abhorrence with which the loyal citizens of West Virginia regarded the traitorous proceedings of the conspirators east of the Alleghenies, and that the effort was prompted simply by a desire to dissolve the connection between the loyal and disloyal sections of the State,” Willey said. “Not so sir….The animosity existing at this time between North and South is hardly greater that what has at times distinguished the relations between East and West Virginia.”
The act would be referred to the Committee on Territories, which included fellow Virginia Senator John S. Carlile.
As the appeal for creating the new state came before Congress, battles waged in the Greenbrier and Shenandoah Valleys. Union forces moved south in an attempt to seize the Confederacy’s crucial Virginia and Tennessee Railroad.
Brig. Gen. Jacob D. Cox proceeded along the New River while Maj. Gen. John C. Frémont maneuvered into the Valley of Virginia. On May 1, future presidents Rutherford B. Hayes and William McKinley were among the Federal troops who engaged in a 13-hour battle with Confederates at Princeton, Mercer County.
The Rebels withdrew from Princeton to Flat Top Mountain, but not before setting fire to the town to keep supplies from falling into Union hands. Less than a dozen structures would remain.
On May 23, U.S. Col. George Crook and 1,600 men were attacked by C.S. Brig. Gen. Henry Heth and 2,200 Rebels at Lewisburg, Greenbrier County. The Federals were successful in repelling the Confederates at the Battle of Lewisburg, inflicting over 200 causalities on Heth’s force and capturing 100 of his men.
The win, however, would be greatly overshadowed by Confederate victories east of the Alleghenies, where Federal forces did not fare as well.
U.S. Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan had been making his way towards the Confederate capital of Richmond at a glacial pace since early mid-March. He finally reached the outskirts of the city in mid-May, forcing Confederate Maj. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson to take action in the Shenandoah Valley.
Jackson’s “Valley Campaign” was intended to make the Federals believe Washington was vulnerable, and encourage them to reinforce the capital with troops which would otherwise surround Richmond. Jackson and his men moved up and down the valley, outmaneuvering a larger combined Union force.
Suffering a defeat by Jackson at the Battle of McDowell in Highland County on May 8, U.S. Brig. Gen. Robert H. Milroy retreated to Franklin, Pendleton County. Frémont would arrive several days later, and stay until May 25.
Jackson continued his campaign, pushing as far as north as Harpers Ferry. Further east, a more crucial turning point in the war took place on the last day of May.
At the Battle of Seven Pines Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston was wounded. Gen. Robert E. Lee, who began his Civil War career in western Virginia, would soon assume command of the Rebel army.
Civil War Journal is produced by the Rich Mountain Battlefield Foundation and Historic Beverly Preservation in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. For more information, please visit www.richmountain.org.
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